Blather-fighters hand out clarity awards

The Center for Plain Language has issued its first awards for the best and worst examples of public communications.

The Center for Plain Language fights the good fight for clarity and simplicity in public communications. Now it has issued its "first annual" awards. The ClearMark Awards are for the best plain-language documents and websites, and the enigmatically named WonderMark Awards go to the "least usable documents." (The organization explains: "We wonder what they meant. We wonder what they were thinking.")

The Center for Plain Language began with a group of civil servants keen to improve government communications with citizens. I like the idea of blather being battled from within. The group has since expanded into a bona fide charitable organization based in the Washington area.

In the financial world, one particular bright light was the Federal Trade Commission's model privacy-policy disclosure form. It was a finalist in the ClearMark competition.

If you do business with a bank, you've probably received a copy – many copies, in fact – of its privacy-policy disclosure form. For this you can thank the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999. This is the law that allowed different types of financial institutions to "consolidate" – banks to buy stock brokerages, for instance. The idea of the disclosure forms was to require financial institutions to prove that they were not disregarding consumer privacy as they charged ahead into sexy new lines of business.

But the forms often seemed designed to disclose as little actual information as their creators thought they could get away with.

By contrast, the FTC's model for a Web-based financial privacy notice has clarity, logic, and white space. It's literally exemplary, something that other institutions could adapt. It's also something that people can print out and bring in to their own banks to ask, "Why doesn't your notice look like this?"

The Grand Prize WonderMark winner was the US Department of Homeland Security for the I-94W. No, that's not an Interstate highway in Vermont. It's the form that noncitizens fill out before entry into the United States, typically aboard their inbound aircraft. The form asks, among other things, "Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide...?" If so, the form counsels, "please contact the American Embassy before you travel to the US."

What were they thinking indeed?

The Voice of America Special English Service, meant for those just learning English, recently ran a report on the Center for Plain Language. The piece included some sound bites from the recent congressional hearings on Goldman Sachs and its involvement with synthetic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). The piece also featured Annetta Cheek, chair of the board of the center, saying that research has shown that financial products that are explained clearly actually sell better than ones that are not. Take that, you synthetic CDO, you!

Among the reader comments was one from someone identified as "jose roberto (brazil)." His words, eloquent in their own way, are reproduced below, with all their endearing departures from standard usage:

"[I]f for you is difficult to understand, could you imagine for us, foreings. when things are confused, non clear for all people, something wrong is, with the thing or with those who do that, this case of Goldman Sachs says all. hugs for you american friends of VOA."

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